Jerry Lebo, 2007
You may have noticed that I have been painting a lot of small paintings on 6x6 panels lately. In fact, I think I am getting a bit addicted to this size. It lends itself well to small still life and landscape work--and it is the type of painting that I recommend you work with if you are just starting out painting, or need to get warmed up. It usually takes me 3-5 hours to finish one of these small paintings--but it can take longer. In the case of "Hostess Cupcakes (Chocolate)" I struggled for quite a while over three days, and finally finished it last night. It may be the last of my "Bite Me" series, as I think I am ready for a new challenge. Although, I don't think it is the end of the 6x6 inch format--so I thought I would show you how I make the panels I use for these types of paintings.
Let me start with a disclaimer. There are a lot of way to make art panels--and I think I have tried most of them over the years. Just go to the art store and you will see all the various technologies. In my mind (and I do not make any money for saying it), SourceTek makes the best panels on the market today. They also happen to be the most expensive--a 6x6 is around $10. If you are selling your paintings for $100--then this is simply not affordable. On the other hand, if you sell you paintings for $1000--or even $300--then you might want to try these. The panels I use cost around $0.35 each to make.
The process starts with a 24x36 sheet of 3/16" tempered Masonite. I buy mine at Home Depot, but I am sure they have this stuff at most hardware stores. Technically, this size is a half sheet--as most places will typically sell it in larger full sheets. There are also different thicknesses--but for small panels there is not much reason to buy it thicker--it just makes the panels heavier. I have used 3/16" masonite for up to 12x12 inch panels. If you want to paint large format paintings on Masonite, there are two problems. First the cost goes up rapidly, and thus canvas becomes more cost-effective. Second, the gesso will warp the sheets as it dries if the panel is large (a problem that can be overcome by using thicker sheets or combining several sheets with glue). In any case, I recommend you use 3/16" mainly for smaller paintings.
I know there are artists who will only paint on panels, even in large sizes. If you want to read more, there is an article in this month's "American Artist, Oil Painting Highlights" magazine titled, "Ask the Right Questions about Hardboard". The artist paints in sizes as large as 30"x40" on Masonite, and recommends that artists use premium untempered, wet/dry process boards. You'll have to read the article to get the details, but I was not clear after reading it why these are preferred--but I think it makes a difference in larger formats. The process is quite elaborate to make such panels.
Anyway, here is the sheet of Masonite ready to go. You will need a good t-square and pencil or marker to get started. It is important to measure very carefully when making small panels, since a little error will make a big difference in the final panel. You can never get it perfect, but you mainly want to make sure the panel is square--if it is not, you should not use it.
Here I was planning only to make eight panels, so I have marked out two lines 6 inches from one end. I then come across and mark three lines 6 inches across down the other side. Use the edge and t-square to make sure you are square to the edges and the panels will be square. If you want to check if they are square--measure the diagonal across each panel--it should be the same distance from opposite corners. If not, the panel is not square--and you need to re-measure (that is why you might want to use a pencil).
Here is what it looks like ready to cut.
And, here is my magic cutting device--a circular saw I bought at Sears a couple of years ago on sale. It cost around $25 and comes in very handy. If you have access to a table saw, I would highly recommend you use it instead of any handheld saw to cut your panels. It is much more accurate. But, if you are careful, a circular saw works just fine. I have also tried a jigsaw and handsaw, neither of which I recommend. For some reason a jigsaw and/or handsaw do not work very well for me--as they tend to create small variations in the edge quality and is easy to get off-line.
So there they are, eight freshly cut panels. The next step is important--sanding the edges and surface. I don't think it matters what type of sandpaper you use--both a medium or fine weight works just fine. I start by sanding the edges to remove all the loose and hanging pieces--then I put a very light sanding on the tempered side of the board (the smooth side), which is the side to which I will be applying gesso. Below is a picture of the pre-sanded and sanded panels. On the left below is a pre-sanded panel, and on the right is a panel after sanding and ready for gesso. The difference should be apparent.
I like to use acrylic gesso, which I apply with a sponge or regular brush. You can use oil-based gesso, but it takes several days to dry--and I do not see much advantage. You use oil paints (or acrylic) on an acrylic gesso--and it dries fast--so why use oil? One word of caution however, gesso is very hard to get off your hands, so I recommend latex gloves or a wet paper towel to clean up quickly.
I start by applying a small bit to the center of the panel and working out from there. If you get too much on the panel, either move it over to the next panel--or simply wipe the brush on the newspaper--which you should definitely put down to protect whatever you are painting on. gesso is very hard to get off of any surface!
After putting a single coat on all panels, I wait 5-10 minutes and come back and put a second coat on each. I think you can probably get away with a single coat, but the brush marks tend to be strong-and a second coat makes a much smoother surface. In fact, if you like a very smooth surface, let the second coat dry a couple of hours--and apply more coats until you are happy. The first coat will dry quickly (1/2 hour), but subsequent coats will take 1-2 hours each.
So there you go, eight fresh panels read for painting. You will need to wait a minimum of 1-2 hours before painting on the panels--but preferably overnight. Clean up any excess that is on the edges, since this will be difficult to remove later. Also, you might want to shift the panels on the newspaper a bit, otherwise they may stick after drying.
So, how much does it costs? The sheet of masonite costs around $8, the gesso around $7 per bottle, and the rest is nominal--assuming you have a t-square and saw. Even if you don't, it might be worth the investment. I can make 20 panels from a sheet of Masonite, and the gesso last for about five sheets. So these panels end up costing around $0.35 each. A bit cheaper than the store bought version. I started making these types of panels several years ago after noticing that Artisan, the art store I haunt when I am in Santa Fe, NM, sells the pre-cut Masonite in their store. It proved to be quick and inexpensive for small paintings. You may find pre-cut panels at your own art store. The price at Artisan is around $1.20 per 6x6 panel--so it is a bit more expensive to buy them pre-cut--but also a bit faster.
Hope you find that useful. Now you cannot complain you have nothing to paint on. You can make these panels quickly and easily in your own studio--for little cost. I like to make various sizes and have them ready. There is nothing I hate more than being ready to paint and not having anything at hand. Yes, you can always stretch a canvas or go buy a ready made panel or canvas from the art store. But, by the time you go there and back, I can make eight panels in my garage--and be painting in the studio. So buy some gesso and Masonite and have it ready in your garage--it is a time saver.
So, there you go. No excuses. Make a small panel and go to your studio and start painting.
All the best, sixtyminuteartist.
Nat had made some comments on tempered vs. un-tempered hardboard--which I wanted to follow up on. I found this link (story of hardboard) which gives a good technical overview (which even I can understand) on hardboards. Bottom line, tempered is okay.